Not Past It - Pirates of the Metric System

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It’s 1999.

And there’s one big thing on NASA’s mind.

The space agency is going back to Mars.

They are launching the Mars.

Climate Orbiter one of two weather satellites set to arrive at our sister Planet.


The Hope find evidence of water maybe even Signs of Life.

For almost 10 months, the spacecraft hurtles through the black of space.

And in September, the red Contours of Mars finally, come into full view.


Scientists back on Earth, hold their breath.

As the Orbiter hurdles towards the Martian atmosphere, maybe the scientists think about their children, their children’s children, what the possible discoveries might mean for generations to come minutes pass, s pass and then complete and total silence.


At first, maybe they thought it was a malfunction, a blip in the software.

But no one of America’s unmanned spacecraft is missing and presumed lost on another planet.

It would never be found.

The Mars.

Climate Orbiter was sent to monitor the red planet’s atmosphere it apparently burned up in it.


Now, you might think this is just some space, hijinks happens all the time.

Well, it turns out that this particular loss was Because the units of measurements, got, What’s the phrase?

Oh, yes, totally fucked.


It turns out that the manufacturer of this satellite Lockheed Martin astronautics.

They used English units of measure when they meanwhile back at Nasa the scientists were calculating in metric.

Not English units.

When the spacecraft carried out the commands.


It had the effect of slightly altering, the trajectory of an embarrassing answer for NASA.

This multimillion-dollar.

Our error is probably the most famous example of our measurement.

Woes in the US, but really our relationship to the metric system has always been cursed.


From gimlet media.

This is not past it a show about the stories.

We can’t quite leave behind every episode.

We take a moment from that very same week in history and tell you the story of how it shaped our world.

I’m Simone palana the story of the small measurement conversion error starts before anyone was thinking of looking for water on Mars, actually one could argue it began 228 Years ago this week on March 21st, 1794, when one man’s attempt to bring the meter to the u.s.


Goes wrong in.

Every way imaginable, shipwrecks revolts Pirates plus the secret power of units.

You’ve likely never thought of before will measure in after the break.



Let’s see.

We’ve got inch foot yard mile fathom and there’s pound ounce, dram gallon quart, tablespoon.

Oh, hi didn’t see you there.


Oh, I was just trying to list for memory.

All the different measurements.

We use for length, volume and mass, and the imperial system of the United States.

Me personally.

I prefer the metric system.

I don’t ever use it in my daily life.


Oh, well, except for that one thing.

Oh wait.

No that’s measured in ounces.

So yeah, I basically never use the metric system even though it’s so much simpler.

Everything is divisible by 10 and you don’t have to deal with random units like Township Furlong Barleycorn like What even is that?


And I’m far from the only American in history to criticize this system.

Even our founding fathers hated it.

That’s right.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Both spent years trying to standardize measurements across the former colonies.


And let’s be honest.

It would also be great to avoid the pesky imperial system.

It being English, and all and as luck would have it around the time that the fathers were.

Founding thinkers and France were cranking out a hot new measurement system.


It would do away with the confusing traditional units of old and it would come to be known as the system metric, the metric system.

And the French were happy to help their old Pals in the u.s.

Not just because science Rules, but because by the late 18th century, France was in the midst of its revolution.


A violent power, struggle between rich and poor, Royal and peasant.

But what does Revolution have to do with measurement?

Well, a lot first and foremost measurement, like Revolution is about power.


Whoever has the power to set measurements has the power.

It’s like having an invisible third-party, refereeing transactions, whether you’re buying something small, like a nice foot massage, or buying something bigger, like land measures are Said they Define our relationships in our society and they defined relative power, who has the power to define those measures defines who can rule the society.


That’s Ken Alder.

He’s a science historian and professor at Northwestern University and while the blood and the violence usually get the most play, when it comes to Revolutions measurement, is one of the ultimate symbols of change for new nations.


This happened during the French.

Lucien, which can says had a much softer nerdier side in this great.

It’s every moment.

Everyone could be enlightened and the products and the knowledge that science provided could be made into something accessible to everybody.


That people could become rational actors and think things through for themselves and banish Superstition and people could reason with science and ordinary life as well.

In other words, science was key to the goal of you back together - hot.


Lead to the revolutionaries were fighting for France, had their own measurement issues.

At the time.

There were an estimated 250,000 different weights and measures used across the country as you can.

Imagine that would make buying that flow Maj quite a Muenster.


French people had been asking for a better system for years.

So promoting a new Universal standard was as much about government power, as it was about cleaning up messy systems, in any case, the French went full force into developing a new measurement system.


That’s when they came up with the idea that every weight and measure should be divisible by 10 and that the standards themselves should be Universal and based on nature, rather than local and traditional smart.

Right for wait, they chose units based on the density of water and for length, that it was defined the meter as a natural unit, based on the size of the world.


Literally the whole ass Earth ass Earth, but why you ask the reader will long to everyone just as the Earth belong to everyone.

The French took these numbers and turn them into physical objects.


A meter stick, and a small one kilogram cylinder called.

The god of both made of copper because how else are you going to spread your new measurement system around the world and 1793 which brings us right back to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.


All the founding fathers needed was for France to send over their hot new standard.

It Wallah one less Vestige of the English and pyre and the United States, but who could possibly take on the great mission of delivering these measures to the Americans thinking thinking thinking Sucka blur Pourquoi, Pas Joseph dombay?


So you’ve probably never heard of Maceo dombay.

He was a botanist by training and had just spent the better part of a decade and Chile and Peru cataloging trees and flowers and all matters of Life.

He’d been living back in France, just as the French were debating who to send to the US with the tools of their metric system.


And on Bay was down his home country was in the midst of Revolution, not the chillest of Vibes.

He was eager to get back.

The Americas.

He even gosh to Thomas Jefferson about visiting the u.s.

And the letter dombay wrote.


We didn’t go.

Well convulsion.

Yeah, I’m sorry.

I thought the axon was a good idea.

It’s clearly not.

Let me take that again.

Reading your work on Virginia and Flames my courage.

And makes me want to see the sites that you have described.


So, well, I have just ask the government for permission to go and button.

My eyes for two or three years in North America.

I will be very happy sir to be able before I die to show you all the feelings that you inspired in me during my stay in Paris where you showered me with kindness.


So dombay was a Jefferson Stan, a plant, dad sort of the perfect science Ambassador for the French and the Americans.

This was a pretty big mission for just one dude.

There was no time to waste.

In January 1794 dombay set sail with the meter stick and the clave aka the kg tucked neatly onto an American sailboat called the soon really an ironic name for a boat.


That wouldn’t be arriving any time soon.

Usually, the voyage across the Atlantic would take about a month for such a trip, you’d hope for a good balance of clear skies and strong winds, but for dombay and the crew aboard his vessel, they got less clear skies and more strong winds.


Actually, they ran into a massive storm.

So big that donbass ship was blown off course, and crashed landed in the Caribbean in March.

Of 1794.

The silver lining of this unfortunate.


Detour France.

Just happen to have a colony there, called Guadalupe, a Tropical Paradise with glittering, beaches and big, beautiful, swaying, palm trees, Magnifique.

The only problem.

Guadalupe was at that time in the same distracted State as France, the Revolutionary party had a command that part of Petra, the governor resided at buster.


We’re joined by such as wish to preserve the old order of things in the colony.

This is Joseph.


Francois de leurs a French librarian and naturalist.

He wrote a biography about dombay back in 1804.

So he’s extremely dead but we got a voice actor to make him come alive.


So yeah Guadalupe was also reeling from the French Revolution though.

The island itself had very specific issues.

I’d like to lose sad, parts of the island were still somewhat attached to the old way of doing things in France.


The plantation owners that lived in Guadalupe were upset that the new French Republic was trying to put an end to chattel slavery.

So even though dombay sought Refuge with his fellow Frenchman, as an emissary of the French Revolution, he wasn’t exactly in Friendly territory and became clear rather quickly that Bombay wouldn’t be resuming.


His metric Journey anytime soon.

During the night.

He was seized and thrown into prison at the Bay of Mao tombe is taken hostage.

So as the meter and the cough sit on the ship back at Port, dombay is locked and Colonial prison.


And if this was a movie trailer, here’s the part.

Where I would say bringing the metric system to the founding fathers.

Just got a lot harder.

And just like a Hollywood film where embellishing some of the details here.


That’s because dombay isn’t really written about too much.

So a lot of the details of his metric, Mission are lost to time.

Over the next few days, things only get worse, a mob, fighting for donbass release swarms, the prison and forces, the government to let him out.


Once dombay is out of prison.

He probably wishes, he was back inside because things on the street of Guadalupe are not looking good.

The mob is still angry and they’re looking to start shit with the people who locked down Bay away in the first place dombay likely.


Zero interest in playing a role in any kind of Revolt.

Remember, he just wanted to deliver the metric system to Jefferson and get back to studying flowers.

So he tries to calm the mob but delivers wrote that.

That doesn’t go his way either dongbei having in vain employed and treat these to oppose this violence.


Placed himself before the leaders of the mob in struggling with whom he fell into the Salt River and was taken out without Signs of Life.

Yeah, ganbei tries to stop the mob with an Earnest speech delivered by the mouth of a river and then just fully falls into the Raging Waters.



Truly cannot catch a break.

Dombay comes down with a fever, but eventually he’s ready to get back on the boat.

Back to his metric Mission.

And remember at the beginning of the episode, when we said this mission was cursed.


Well, girly.

We haven’t even gotten to the Pirates yet.

Avast me.


Yo, ho after the break.

Shiver me, timbers, we’re back before the break.


We learned that the metric system was a product of the French Revolution and that the new Republic wanted to ship their M and calves to the United States as a way to truly universalize, their new measure.

So they tapped Joseph dombay who was swept off course and caught up in the Revolutionary politics of a small Caribbean island.


And after a bit of a kerfuffle and a really bad fever, he was free again.

Getting ready to deliver the metric system to America by sailboat.

Its a bright shining Caribbean Day Men, Scamper up and down a creaking, dock as they load up the ship, set to take dombay to America.


A light Breeze rolls off the ocean muffling, their hurried commands, throw this trunk here, hide that flag there, ready the sales now when everything is ready, the ship takes off.

Dombay is tucked amongst the crew as unassuming as he could possibly be crashing through the turquoise.


Breaks, everyone mutters hopeful prayers.

There nearly in the Deep Blue Waters of the open.

Ocean nearly in the clear.

Then bam, two, pirate ships appear out of nowhere.


They Circle the ship like Hungry Sharks.

They’ve been hired by the British bad news for the very French dombay.

While the crew, tries to defend the ship, dombay changes out of his French clothes, and quickly puts on a disguise.


It was plain ordinary.

Something that wouldn’t draw any more unwanted attention.

And apparently I’m 17.

Before that meant wearing a Spanish Sailors uniform.

Sure, a bit of Cosplay to avoid being taken hostage again.


Why not?

And pretty soon.

The ship’s crew can’t defend themselves any longer, really?

They never had a chance Pirates, fling ropes.

Over the ship’s rail egg, pulling it closer and closer.


They board on base ship and sees all of the cargo.

Eventually dombay is identified as a Frenchman despite his Club.

The sky’s the Pirates, take the ship the cargo, and their new French Hostage to the nearby British island of Montserrat or dombay is thrown into yet another dingy prison.


The meter and the god of though meet a brighter fate sort of all the cargo on the ship including those trunks, carrying the metric.

Tools was auctioned off the meter stick and the god of did eventually make it Stateside, but they ended up in the hands of a land surveyor who probably didn’t understand what they were.


So they never got to Thomas Jefferson.

Not that it would have mattered.

Anyways, that’s because there were other issues that would make bringing any new measures to the US.

Pretty tough after donbass failed Mission and 1794.


American sentiments had changed regarding France.

Many felt that the French were too radical.

So a measurement system from France, was sort of pooh-poohed.

Also, Congress didn’t want to make a change, that would force merchants.

It’s to give up their traditional measuring instruments.


It can be really expensive to do that.

But most importantly, America seemed to be doing fine with their Imperial measures left over from the British here.

Science historian can Alder.

Again as a very large economy that has lots of complicated internal domestic exchange.


We can get by pretty well with standard weights and measures according to Ken trade between States was so strong back then.

And even now that we can trade pretty efficiently with the imperial system.

So the metric system was sort of pushed to the Wayside even after its long and arduous Journey, but it’s a pirate joke, by the way, let me have my fun on the surface things have stayed pretty metric lists in the US since then, every few decades since the early 1800s, people float, the idea of adopting the metric system again, and again, Then but the average American still measures and inches gallons and pounds.


But that doesn’t mean America is completely divorced from the metric system.

In 1975 President Gerald Ford made the metric system, the preferred system for trade and commerce.

When he signed the metric conversion act since then, the federal government has required packages to include both metric and imperial units on Commercial products.


So if you see products at the store, you may spot stuff like ML and fluid ounces on the packaging because even if the federal government prefers the metric system Americans still widely, use the imperial system.

What this means is that the United States is in a sort of measurement, limbo.


If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is Remember from the very top of the shell, that whole Mars Orbiter snafu.

The technology on the spacecraft was engineered by an American contractor.


Using imperial units.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists used metric units, which led to that totally avoidable and totally catastrophic conversion error.

The consequences extend beyond science and big catastrophes at Nasa.


There are errors with prescription medication and small American businesses can be excluded from the international market for using imperial units on their packaging.

So why can’t America just avoid all this and get her ass fully on the metric system.


Well, Ken says it goes back to Power, especially transfers of power countries.

Tend to shift.

Measurement systems when they’re going through.

Other massive changes, it is tended to happen because there’s a radical change in sovereignty, a revolution as in France during programs of national unification.


As in Italy or Germany, where series of small little sub nation states gathered together?

Create new nations.

It usually takes a literal Revolution to implement new standards of Measure the United States is a country that is not been through a radical change.


It itself is creation of a long complicated, but reformist past not a revolutionary pass and it’s been 250 years since the US has had any fundamental change in its government.

And so there has been a kind of muddling through with good enough America.


The land of good enough.

Put that on a bumper sticker.

There is only parochial about it.

We’ve been able to get away with it being parochial because we’re big enough and Wealthy enough to get away with it.

A small country, can’t get away with being parochial as easily anymore.


The u.s.

Is okay with being sort of backwards and we can be backwards.

We’re big enough, strong enough, and good enough seems to be working out.

Good enough.

Which makes me think about the sad little Frenchman.


We left in that dingy prison after being captured by Pirates, Joseph dombay for years.

No one in France, knew what happened to dombay?

Or seem to care.

They were too busy with the revolution.


But the truth is that he ended up dying in that prison and Montserrat about a month after he was taken captive without a friend to console him.

And in Distant captivity adding one to the list of those who have died matters to their Zeal of Natural History.


That’s Joseph Phillips.

Hall Swaddlers are French naturalist again about 10 years.

After donbass death.

He wrote a 29-page eulogy on history’s, unluckiest scientist.

He begins far differently.


Circumstanced are men who sacrificed their time.

Their Fortune.

They are Health to seek in unknown climb.

The materials necessary to establish the theories of ingenious men prompted by these considerations, the professor’s of the museum are anxious to record in their annals the services, which Joseph Bombay has rendered to Natural History and the name of down Bay will become dear to the Friends of Science and of humanity.


So let’s pour one out for the donbass of the world.

The folks who venture out risk it all not for their own Glory, but for the advancement of knowledge, you know, I tried to come up with some really poignant final thing to say about dombay and his ill-fated Journey, but my own words seem to fail me here.


So I’m going to borrow from an unconventional Source actress.

Kirstie Alley, something she tweeted.

Upon learning of renowned physicist.

Stephen Hawkings death, you had a good go at it.

Thanks for your input.


From get it because it’s French.

Not passed it as a Spotify original produced by gimlet and zsp media.


This episode was produced by Julie Carly next week.

We’re going on a crime-filled history, Domino Journey.

So he was running guns and drugs out of some wagon and lying on his name.

And we use for our own.

This is like 19th century, Breaking Bad.


The rest of our team.

Our producers, Amy, Padula and Sarah Craig.

Our associate producer is remotely Philip.

Newcombe is our production assistant the supervising producer is Erica Morrison, editing by k.t.

Feather and Andrea be Scott, JP right?


Played the voice of Joseph Phillips, hornswogglers fact-checking, by Jane, Ackerman sound design and mixing by Hans Dale.

She original music by Sachs kicks, Ave.

Willie, Green, Jay bless and Bobby.


Our theme song is Toko, Liana by cocoa with music supervision by Liz Fulton, technical Direction by Zach Schmidt show art by Elysee Harvin.


And Talia Rahman, the executive producer at CSP media, as Zack Stewart Ponte a, the executive producer from gimlet as Abbie.


Oh, and if this episode has inspired you to learn more about the metric system, check out forward slash metric or you can follow at nist and is T on Twitter.


They have a lot of fun, educational materials on converting to the metric system special.

Thanks to Elizabeth Benham at nist.

Keith Martin Becky Carly Caroline Keller and to Lydia Pole, Green Dan Behar Jen hon.

Emily wiedemann list Styles and Joshua Bianchi, follow not past it.


Now, to listen for free exclusively on Spotify.

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And while you’re there, why don’t you leave us a five star rating?

You can follow me on Twitter at Simone palana and thanks for hanging.


We’ll see you next week.

I am interested in the history of the banal things that are invisible but that operate all the time around us shape, Our Lives.

Almost more than the things that are visible to us.